- Historic Sites
“Four Good Legs Between Us”
When the lives of a failed prizefighter, an aging horsebreaker, and a bicycle-repairman-turned-overnight-millionaire converged around a battered little horse named Seabiscuit, the result captivated the nation and transcended their sport
July/August 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 4
Seabiscuit and the Iceman had been waiting for him. Woolf looked at War Admiral and saw the depth of the colt’s effort. “His eye was rolling wildly in its socket as though the horse was in agony,” he said later. “I knew we had him right then.” He dropped low over the saddle and called into Seabiscuit’s ear, asking him for everything he had. Seabiscuit gave it to him, delivering a rally that carried him back to the lead. War Admiral’s mouth dropped open; he had had enough. Seabiscuit galloped down the lane alone as hundreds of fans stretched their hands out over the rail to brush his shoulders. He hit the wire four lengths in front in near world-record time, completing what Rice called “one of the greatest competitive efforts I have ever seen.” As thousands of frenzied spectators breached the rails and poured onto the track, a laughing Woolf stood in the irons and looked back at War Admiral, gesturing in triumph.
After the race an envelope from Woolf arrived at Pollard’s hospital room. Inside was fifteen hundred dollars, half of the jockey’s purse.
Seabiscuit was crowned Horse of the Year, but there remained one contest the Howards yearned to see him win: the Santa Anita Handicap. The horse returned to Santa Anita in January 1939 to prepare for a third try at the race. But as Seabiscuit made his move for the lead in his prep race, Woolf heard a sharp crack, and the horse began to lurch. Woolf bailed out and dragged him to a halt. Seabiscuit’s long-ailing left front tendon had ruptured at last, and his career was surely over. He was in his stall when his stablemate, Kayak II, won the Santa Anita Handicap. Marcela found the victory empty.
For nine months Seabiscuit stalked the fences at Howard’s Ridgewood Ranch, fat and stir-crazy, trying to race deer that wandered nearby. Pollard, after several leg operations, left the hospital on crutches. He was now engaged to nurse Agnes, but he was so frail that she was certain he was dying. A friend likened his leg to a charred broomstick. “One little tap,” Pollard said. “Just one.” Medical bills had bankrupted him, and he had nowhere to go, so the Howards took him in at Ridgewood. There the invalid horse and jockey commiserated. Once Seabiscuit’s lameness was gone, Pollard and Howard began cinching the horse into a stock saddle each morning. Red was too weak to hold the horse, so Howard lifted him into the saddle, swung aboard a lead pony, and led the two around the meadows, gradually increasing the length and speed of each outing. “Our wheels went wrong together, but we were good for each other,” said Pollard. “Out there among the hootin’ owls, we both got sound again.”
By year’s end Smith and the Howards decided to give Seabiscuit one more shot at the Santa Anita Handicap. Pollard’s leg was so brittle that he needed a steel brace to prevent it from snapping, and he was under strict orders never to ride again. But he couldn’t bear to watch Pops race without him. He also had a family to think of; he had married Agnes, she was expecting a child, and he was dead broke. Howard reluctantly gave him permission to ride. The comeback, if successful, would be utterly unprecedented; no horse had ever returned to top form after such a serious injury and lengthy layoff. In addition, Seabiscuit was seven years old now, more than twice the age of some of his rivals. But Howard, Smith, and Pollard thought he could do it. Seabiscuit and Pollard set out for Santa Anita to chase the one prize that had eluded them. “Old Pops and I have got four good legs between us,” said Pollard. “Maybe that’s enough.”
Wedding Call suddenly shouldered Seabiscuit into a pocket. Thinking that bad luck would cost his horse victory a fourth time, Pollard prayed aloud.
As Seabiscuit and Pollard stepped onto the track for the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap, the record crowd of seventy-four thousand delivered two emotional ovations. Howard, his hands shaking so badly he couldn’t light his cigarette, watched his old warrior go from the paddock. Marcela hid in the quiet of the barn. “I’d seen Johnny’s leg,” she explained. “I just couldn’t watch it.” At the last moment she changed her mind and ran toward the track.
Seabiscuit broke well and settled into perfect striking position around the first turn and down the backstretch. As they leaned into the final turn, Pollard had dead aim on the leaders and an armful of horse beneath him. But a horse named Wedding Call suddenly shouldered Seabiscuit into a pocket, leaving Pollard standing halfupright to hold back his mount, straining his bad leg to the limit. There was no way out. Thinking that bad luck would cost his horse victory a fourth time, Pollard prayed aloud. A moment later Wedding Call drifted out, and Pollard hung on as Seabiscuit burst into the lead.
In the center of the track, a closer began to roll into Seabiscuit’s lead like a ghost from his past. This time it was Kayak II, his stablemate and the defending champion. For the last time Seabiscuit eased up to tease a rival. Then, in one great, final effort, he swept away from Kayak to win the Santa Anita Handicap. He had run the second-fastest mile and a quarter in American racing history.
Across the track Marcela Howard stood atop a water wagon. She had scrambled aboard just in time to see her horse put her long-sought dream into the palm of her hand.